Preventing Youth Violence

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Allen Joplin. De’Che Morrison. Perry Henderson. Pierre LaPoint. Quincy Coleman.

All of these young men were victims of gun violence in 2008.  Their lost contributions to our community are why in 2009 we – the previous Mayor and Council together with community partners — launched the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative. The program has been helping young people at risk of carrying out violence or being a victim for three years now and in this budget review (under way until November 19) we’re having a deep and needed discussion about how to ensure we’re enrolling the young people most at risk and serving them with interventions that truly help. 

We created the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative (SYVPI) in 2009 to respond to and end the spate of violence between young people in Seattle. We needed markers to watch and chose two goals — reduce by 50 percent juvenile court referrals for crimes “against persons” committed by youth residing in one of the three “network areas” (Central, Southeast and Southwest Seattle) and to reduce by 50 percent suspensions and expulsions due to violence-related incidents at middle schools in the three areas. To many people these were audacious goals – and for many people not audacious enough. To affect changes with the kids referred into SYVPI we set up a variety of programs, including case management, aggression replacement training employment, and mentoring.

Because the need was and is so urgent, staff at SYVPI describe operating the Initiative as “building the plane as we’re flying it” – responding to immediate needs while choosing community service providers in the three network areas; contracting for programs that keep kids from perpetrating or becoming a victim of violence; making sure we have the right balance of services; and figuring out if we’re targeting the young people who can benefit most from the program.

I’m glad the plane is in the air, and I know that the staff, non-profit partners, and volunteers with SYVPI are working smart and hard along with youth to provide resources and services to our community.  I also think after three years it’s OK to undertake a more careful assessment of what’s working and what’s not with the Initiative. 

My first question – are the most at-risk kids in the program?  We originally planned for 800 young people to be part of SYVPI’s programs.   Over the past two years enrollment expanded to 1600 before being reduced and capped at the current 1050. I’m glad we’re serving so many young people, but I also wonder – are 1,600 youth really at imminent risk of committing violence or becoming a victim?  I don’t doubt that all of these young people (and more) can benefit tremendously from positive youth development services, and I am in favor of funding these services. We must if we’re to create healthy opportunities for all youth. 

My second question – do we have an effective mix of services to prevent youth violence?  I know all of the services the initiative provides – case management, aggression replacement training, mentoring and employment – have good data behind them that show a connection to a reduction in youth violence. Some of these programs are being implemented with modifications from best practices and some of the programs have changed as that flying plane gets built.  I think it’s smart to evaluate whether we’re moving the needle on our goals.

Speaking of goals (and my third question) – are we aiming for the right goals?   That 50 percent drop in referrals to court for juvenile crimes for crimes against persons committed by youth in one of the three networks and that 50 percent drop in suspensions and expulsions for violence related incidents were aspirational goals and remain the overall SYVPI goals.  Annual goals of a 10 percent reduction have been added to better match targets used by the United States Department of health and Human Services.

The latest statistics assembled by SYVPI staff show mixed results for our three years of effort.    Juvenile crimes are down 19% from 2008 to 2011 in SYVPI youth , but down almost as much (17%) for non-SYVPI kids.  Suspensions and expulsions are up 12% from  2008 – 2011 for SYVPI youth as opposed to up 3% for non-SYVPI youth.  So, is it working or not? 

So far in Budget review public hearings, emails and conversations we’ve heard from young people whose lives have been literally saved by SYVPI. Perhaps the best news for these young people is that the City remains strongly committed to making SYVPI a lifesaving set of programs. Councilmembers – those who helped establish SYVPI and the newer ones – uniformly support SYVPI’s work. The Mayor’s draft two-year budget arrived with increased funding for youth currently enrolled in SYVPI and includes money to expand the program to more youth in 2014. Better than trying to convince people to not cut the program, yes?

I hope that when we go through almost-final Budget votes next week we do four things:

  1. Confirm ongoing funding for SYVPI programs (more than $3 million a year);
  2. Fund the final development and testing of a “risk assessment screening tool” to help identify whether a youth should be in the SYVPI and what services and programs would they need;
  3. Fund the staff needed to carry out the new risk assessment;
  4. Fund a strong, meaty evaluation of SYVPI so we can know what moves the needle the right way (or maybe the wrong way) in terms of what we’re doing now to keep young people out of violence.

Once we have a risk assessment tool in use and once we have a roadmap for the evaluation, we should consider opening the doors wider than the 1,000-plus SYVPI enrollees we have now. I have no doubt that we can fill the slots with young people in need of mentoring and employment and overall support, but this particular program was built to serve the kids most at risk. I don’t want to lose them.

The deep and needed discussions in Budget review sessions have been about how to evaluate the SYVPI airplane pieced together in flight. We’re at the point where we need to check our assumptions and make sure we’re truly helping the young people in SYVPI. I know in my gut that we are, but we need more than a gut feeling if we’re to spend our dollars in the best way for the young lives at stake. It would be irresponsible to not ask if we can do better; keep young people safer; drive violence further out.

I am as committed now as I was four years ago to making sure that we don’t keep adding names to a list of young people’s lives lost or changed for the worse forever because of youth violence.